Bangalore: It is a sweltering day in Bangalore, evidence of the garden city’s fading reputation for being blessed with balmy weather year round.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic, young supporters who ignore the sun beating down mercilessly, a balding, fast-talking man is shaking the hands of commuters waiting for a bus at the morning peak hour.
As a bus heading towards Dairy Circle—the entrance to an arterial road that houses technology powerhouses such as International Business Machines Corp. and Oracle Corp.—stops, he and his supporters hop in. Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath, the man who pioneered low-cost air travel in India with his Air Deccan, is commuting by a humble public bus to court voters.
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Popularly known as Captain Gopi—an allusion to his days in the Indian Army many years ago—the entrepreneur is fighting election to the Lok Sabha from Bangalore South constituency as an independent candidate.
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Based on his experience in the aviation industry, Gopinath is depending on unconventional ambush marketing tactics. His campaign methods include travelling on buses, meeting people on their morning walks at parks and addressing techies at the gates of their campuses.
Once inside the bus, he goes around introducing himself and asking people whether they have registered to vote and explaining to them why it is important to do so. His young supporters, meanwhile, distribute flyers containing basic information about Gopinath to commuters.
At Dairy Circle, he wades into a small crowd of young techies, or technology professionals, heading to work and speaks earnestly about the need to elect someone who will fight communalism, casteism and corruption. He says he is their candidate to do it. Some say they have not even registered to vote. “I don’t have the time,” says one who lugs around a laptop bag. He refused to identify himself. Gopinath delivers a homily on why it is critical for young people to stand up and be counted.
“We can either keep criticizing that the system is not all right or do something about it,” Gopinath says. “We have to decide between choosing whether we want to be a part of the problem or the solution.”
There is some enthusiastic backing from some techies. Even as a curious crowd starts gathering around him, two security guards wade in and request Gopinath to move on.
Bangalore South is seen as a prestigious constituency because it has a large proportion of highly educated voters and a huge base of those who work in the information technology sector.
This constituency, with a cosmopolitan mix of voters, has been a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 1991. In May 2008, the BJP assumed office in Karnataka—the party’s first government in the state and in southern India.
Gopinath is pitted against some strong candidates. While former Union civil aviation minister and BJP nominee H.N. Ananth Kumar is looking for a fifth consecutive win from the constituency, the Congress has pitched Krishna Byre Gowda, a suave, rising Young Turk, said to be close to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who flew down to campaign for him. The Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, has fielded noted educationist K.E. Radhakrishna.
In spite of the heavyweights he is facing, Gopinath has managed to get quite a few celebrity endorsers. They include Infosys Technologies Ltd’s non-executive chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy, the company’s human resources director T.V. Mohandas Pai, chairman and managing director of Biocon LtdKiran Mazumdar-Shaw, co-founders of Janaagraha (a citizen’s group) Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan (the latter writes a column for Mint) and fashion designer Prasad Bidappa.
Mazumdar-Shaw, who launched Gopinath’s election website, says: “He has always been a change maker. I am sure his win will ensure changes in social, political and economic realms.”
Pai, who has been vocal about the infrastructure problems plaguing Bangalore, says he is supporting Gopinath because he is the voice of the city’s educated middle class. “He understands their aspirations and hopes for a compassionate united India,” Pai says.
For a man who is just onto his third entrepreneurial venture with his air cargo company, why the allure of public office now?
The perceived weak response of the Indian state to November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, targeting of Christians in parts of Karnataka and women being dragged out of pubs and being thrashed by a Hindu right-wing group were some of the immediate triggers, says Gopinath. “It is easy to be cynical. Be the change you want to see,” he says.
It is Gopinath’s second venture in politics. In 1994, he contested election to the Karnataka assembly on a BJP ticket from Ghandsi, in Hassan, and lost. So why not the BJP again? He says he was a political novice and a farmer when BJP approached him back then.
“The party did not have much presence in Karnataka then. In fact, several political parties offered me a platform to contest this time too, but I think all (parties) are tainted. People are looking for honest, upright independent candidates.”
BJP candidate Ananth Kumar is sanguine about his chances. “He (Gopinath) is a good friend. But people are aware of the kind of work done by me in the constituency. They have blessed me four times and I am confident of winning this time too,” Kumar says.
Caste and community calculations are being worked out in the constituency. Brahmins and Vokkaligas (also called Gowdas) are the dominant communities here. While the Congress candidate is a Vokkaliga, the candidates of the BJP, the JD(S) and Gopinath himself are Brahmins.
“This time, we have a serious chance of winning as Brahmin votes are likely to be split three ways. Captain’s entry is a blessing for us. He will be an effective spoiler,” claims Pancha Linge Gowda, a Congress worker. Former chief minster S.M. Krishna, whose tenure saw unprecedented growth of Bangalore, has been actively campaigning for Krishna Byre Gowda, the Congress candidate.
So would Gopinath just end up being a spoiler? What about the speculation that his candidacy has the secret blessings of chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa? It is no secret that the chief minister and his party colleague Ananth Kumar don’t get along well with each other.
Gopinath bristles at the suggestion “I am nobody’s stooge. I am in this contest to win and I am confident of doing so,” he says.